Matt Wells on recruiting for in-house

At our IHALC Autumn One-Day summit, Matt Wells of Congregation Partners (above left) joined Patrick Burgoyne (above right) to discuss the challenges of creative recruitment in-house and how to successfully build in-house teams. We’ve asked Matt to share his secrets for successfully building in-house teams, what IHAs could learn from start-ups, and how to be free of the lazy tyranny of the job description

Lessons from digital

In the early-mid 2000s we helped build the first digital creative teams in ATL and Integrated agencies. A lot of the lessons we learned back then are directly applicable to building in-house agencies today.

At the time we were placing great people at great agencies – and yet almost all of them were unhappy in their new roles and a high proportion had left after only a few months. Alarmed at the unprecedented drop-out rate we commissioned research to try and identify what was going on.

When we got the results back we were amazed – in almost every case, the issues cited were the same:

  • Lack of a detailed business model
  • Lack of a shared common language
  • Limited engagement across the wider organisation

Lack of a proper business model often resulted in inadequate levels of investment. Lack of a shared common language led to misunderstanding and miscommunication. In turn both of these issues negatively impacted engagement levels which, in most cases had been low from the outset.

Ultimately what we learned was that successfully embedding new teams, with new skills into an existing organisation (where those skills haven’t existed before) is about much more than effective recruitment. In addition, it requires a carefully designed program of training and knowledge development aimed at the wider organisation in order to ‘properly prepare the body for the organ’.

You’re Launching a Start-up

When you build an in-house agency you’re effectively launching a start-up and in order to be successful, you need to behave like one. The first 12-18 months are about delivering proof of concept. Only once you’ve done that, can you move into scale-up phase, which is about growth and business impact.

Building a start-up team is not just about finding people that have the core skills needed to produce stellar work, they also need the behaviour traits that enable them to lean in to the wider organisation, build trust and drive engagement.

Consider Hiring Like One

Fast-growth tech businesses have had to take a radically different approach to recruitment so they can scale quickly, without negatively impacting organisational culture. One of the ways they do this is by weighting cultural fit over skillset. One of our clients employed a psychologist to design a 30-minute Q&A that could be delivered over the phone. The questionnaire allowed the interviewer to score a candidate based on how likely they were to succeed in the context of their organisational culture. Candidates with a high enough score were given the option of a 6-week, paid internship rather than continue with the interview process. Not only did this cut a huge amount of time and cost out of the recruitment process, compared to the traditional interview route, it was statistically more likely to end in a successful hire. Internships are already a well-trodden path into creative agencies and definitely have scope to evolve in an in-house context.

One of the other hiring strategies we’ve adopted from the scale-up community is the use of scorecards rather than the lazy tyranny of job descriptions. I have long held the belief that most job descriptions are universally awful. Scorecards are brilliant (and help you write better job descriptions). A Scorecard is a simple template that helps stakeholders identify and agree what’s most important. This includes:

  • Your mission (why this? Why now?)
  • Business goals (what does the person you hire have accomplish to be deemed a success?)
  • A simple IQ/EQ matrix (what do they need to know how to do already? How do they need to behave?)
  • The value exchange (what’s in it for them?)
  • Stakeholders are tasked with ranking the scorecard to ensure alignment before they start the recruitment process. A well-crafted scorecard is the keystone of a highly effective recruitment process.

The Business Case for Creativity

For in-house creative leadership to be successful, a more commercial mindset is critical. The ECD of a creative agency doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how they’ve impacted the share price of their clients. If you’re the ECD of an in-house agency you absolutely need to understand that connection, you need to build the business case for creativity. To do that you have to both understand and demonstrate the commercial impact of your team’s output on the bottom line.

Identify the Value Exchange

Some kind of tangible ‘value exchange’ is at the heart of every successful recruitment process. In agency-land the value exchange when hiring creatives is simple – the opportunity to produce great work and win awards. To compete for the very best creative talent IHA’s have to be able to match this – that means a culture that values creativity and innovation and the appetite (and budget) to enter awards.

For the right candidates, IHAs can offer additional value – the opportunity to learn and evolve. There’s a knowledge exchange at the heart of every successful in-house agency team. The really exciting opportunity for in-house creatives is to grow and as business people as well as creatively – to get closer to the numbers, to the product and the customer.

The best in-house creatives are inveterately curious, hybrid polymaths – interested in more than just awards.

And the CMO-Chief Creative Officer partnership is critical. They have to work together as a team, not as master and servant, in the same way that the best agency relationships work as teams of equals.

Don’t just post a job.

If you look at the best teams in the world, in almost any sector, they all behave in the same way when it comes to recruitment. It’s not outsourced to HR, they don’t work with that many recruitment partners, it’s basically a member-get-member model. The best teams have a checklist of the people they want to hire at the beginning of every year, based on a detailed analysis of the available talent in-market as well as the business plan.

The future of talent is all about sweating the detail. It’s about physically building high-value networks, as well as getting down and dirty onLinkedin.

One of the frailties of a traditional recruitment model is that idea that if we build it, they will come. You need to take responsibility for going out to find the people that you want.

For More on Matt Wells and Congregation Partners, visit

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